Volunteers keep the towns welcome signs maintained. Photo by David Grace.
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series about the struggles of the small, Southwest Virginia town.
Pennington Gap resembles every other small town in America. A few fast food places and a few mom-and-pop shops are spread throughout the community of 1,781 people.
But look closer and cracks begin to form. Windows are boarded up, businesses sit empty and houses are falling apart. Walk into any restaurant around lunch time and you’ll be lucky to find more than one person inside.
While hope exists that Pennington Gap will turn around, some residents believe the town is dying.
“My question is how are you going to build a town and keep it from dying if you don’t have any industry here,” said Pennington Gap resident and retired Navy veteran Bruce Jones. “You can’t. I see no future.”
Pennington Gap is struggling. Some of the buildings where businesses used to be have been abandoned for 20 years or more. More than half of all residents live in poverty, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census.
Things weren’t always bad in Pennington Gap. Coal was once king in the area and the town was the hub of Lee County.
At one time, there were four car dealerships, three theaters, multiple businesses, a train depot and a multistory hotel. The Lee Theatre attracted stars such as Clark Gable. On a Friday or Saturday night during the height of the town’s popularity, the streets would be packed with people and traffic would be bumper to bumper.
“You had stores open until 9 or 10 o’clock at night,” said Pennington Gap Mayor D.R. Carter. “People were on the streets all the time ... it was thriving.”
Carter is 67 and has lived in Pennington Gap his entire life. He retired from the penal institution and got into public life. He became mayor in 2010.
Along Main Street in the middle of downtown, there was a Gibson department store, a five and 10, a novelty store, a cafe that Carter’s mother owned, a hardware store, a novelty shop, a sewing factory and a Ford dealership, Carter said.
All you can see along Main Street today is the decaying of awnings, windows boarded up, ivy taking over the walls and names written in the dust of an empty window. A transmission shop sits in place of the Ford dealership and the now closed sewing factory shows signs of decay with dark water stains running down from the roof.
Escaping what Pennington Gap used to be is almost impossible. Walking in downtown along Morgan Avenue, you are never out of sight of an abandoned building, whether it’s the old service station in front of the railroad tracks on the right, or Creech’s furniture on the left with couches still in the windows.
“For the last 15 or 20 years, the town is beginning to die as far as merchants and everything because you’ve got your Walmarts and your big cities like Kingsport where people like to go and eat and thrive,” Carter said. “We don’t have that here in Pennington Gap.”
Carter explained the former merchants have all passed on and most of their children were not interested in continuing the businesses. Job prospects for residents of Pennington Gap aren’t looking promising.
“We don’t really have any industry here, except for the food industry,” Carter said.
The food industry in Pennington Gap today is the town’s largest employer. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 28 percent of all workers in Pennington Gap worked in that particular sector. The average for people employed by a service industry is 17 percent nationally.
Because a good majority of jobs in Pennington Gap are in the service field, median household income for residents is $17,353. Nationally, median household income is $51,914, almost tripling the amount made by residents of Pennington Gap, while median household income for the state of Virginia is $61,406, almost quadrupling the amount.
The 2010 Census states that almost 54 percent of Pennington Gap residents live in poverty, but some think that amount is probably higher.
“I think it’s a lot higher than that,” said lifelong resident Jenny Napier-Jones. “When I was working in the pharmacy, it was about 60 percent in the ’80s.”
According the U.S. Census, approximately 29 percent of residents make $10,000 a year or less. No other income category reaches 19 percent. The high poverty level has made it hard for businesses to get off the ground in the area because there is very little money to go around. Even businesses that are seeing a lot of customers are struggling.
First Virginia Pawn and Gold is one of those businesses. Even though people are coming in, most are trying to get loans or sell their items in order to pay their bills.
“You’ve got people that are being laid off, mines shut down and you have big-ticket items that are hard to sell, where do you get the money?” said Renee Mullins-Russell, owner of First Virginia Pawn and Gold. “There’s no money here. When people’s got money that are on a fixed income, whether it be SSI or Social Security disability ... it’s sort of a one-way street to where when items come in, they don’t hardly get to go back out because they don’t have the money.”
Mullins said because of this situation, most of the shop’s money is out and only a percentage comes back in. Sometimes people will bring items into her shop just to pay some bills and will never get it out. She tries to help out those struggling when she can, but her shop is bursting at the seams with items. She sometimes wonders how many more guns can she buy or how many more pieces of jewelry she can pay for.
Even when a new business comes into Pennington Gap — Mayor Carter may have secured an O’Reilly Auto Parts franchise for the town — it seems two businesses leave.
BJ Motors, the last auto dealership, closed its doors on June 1. Wellmont recently laid off 13 people and shut down the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and it was recently announced more mining jobs in Kentucky and Virginia were going to be lost, 110 in all.
Carter tried to get a Pennington Gap merchants association started in the town and wrote letters last year but got no response.
“That tells me that the people aren’t interested,” Carter said. “If you’ve not got the heartbeat or bloodstream in a community or a body, then it’s going to die. That’s slowly what it’s doing. Our town is dying from a lack of interest.”
It doesn’t stop with businesses. Only one school remains in Pennington Gap, the local middle school. Both the elementary and high schools have left Pennington Gap to go to other towns in Lee County. The hotel burned down years ago and the train depot suffered the same fate.
The combination of no jobs and poverty has led to another problem for residents of Pennington Gap — drugs.
Next: How drugs may be be contributing to the town's demise.